Max Mayfield is Mr. Hurricane

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As if the stout metal roof on Max Mayfield’s suburban Miami home weren’t evidence enough that he knows hurricanes, his laptop leaves no doubt.

As if the stout metal roof on Max Mayfield’s suburban Miami home weren’t evidence enough that he knows hurricanes, his laptop leaves no doubt. It is chock full of tables, graphs and talking points about the subject that has intrigued and at times consumed him since he started as a rookie forecaster with the National Weather Service 34 years ago.

Mayfield, who is 58, retired in January after six years as director of the NationalHurricaneCenter, drawing to a close a civil service career that began in 1972 when he joined the Weather Service’s Miami office as a satellite meteorologist. Seven seasons in the eye of the storm as America’s hurricane guru were enough. “I felt like the HurricaneCenter owned my soul for the last several years,” Mayfield says.

Tired of the hectic pace in-season and endless travel out of season, Mayfield was ready for a break. He slept on a sofa in his office during hurricane watches. He traveled so much that he called his wife once and she didn’t recognize his voice on the phone. He received 38,000 e-mails a year, a crushing burden, and was a lightning rod for criticism after tough calls. He was even in the crosshairs of disgruntled “green” activists, who burned him in effigy after he told Congress that hurricanes are on the increase because of cyclic patterns, not global warming.

Mayfield won’t miss any of that, but don’t expect him to settle into his golden years yet. He isn’t finished with hurricanes, not by a long shot. And that’s good news to his peers. “I’ve known Max since he went to the HurricaneCenter in the early ’70s,” says William Gray, the University of Colorado professor and hurricane guru who predicts how many storms we’ll have every year. “He’s been a solid guy, a really solid guy. … He knows his stuff. He’s a good forecaster. He knows all the technical problems and all the human emergency-management problems.”

Mayfield also happens to be a genuinely nice guy, personable and well-liked, which also was an asset in his face-to-face dealings with the media, emergency managers, Congress, even the president, says Gray. He holds a master’s degree in meteorology, not a doctorate, and this caused some in the heavily certificated weather bureaucracy to titter when he was appointed director, Gray says. But Mayfield proved his detractors wrong. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to do the down and dirty work of a forecaster,” Gray says.

And Mayfield did the dirty work very well indeed.

Three months into his retirement, Mayfield had just returned from a Caribbean cruise with his wife, Linda — something the couple had wanted to do for years. Mayfield says it was a “wonderful” 10 days. “I never had the time to do it before,” he says.

Now he is sitting at a table on his back porch against a lush backdrop of tropical foliage and a cool, blue swimming pool. The setting is quintessential Miami, but hurricane season is just two months away, and a reporter is peppering him with questions — about hurricanes.

As he patiently answers, Mayfield fields calls, first about the upcoming National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans — he is vice-chair of the event and will be chairman in 2008 — then about a broadcast job as a hurricane analyst. A calm, steadying presence to millions of Americans during hurricane seasons 2000 to 2006, Mayfield expects to be back on the air in 2007 — not as the authoritative voice of the NationalHurricaneCenter but as a television hurricane meteorologist.

On April 1 he signed on as hurricane specialist with WPLG Channel 10, a South Florida station. He’ll be interpreting tropical storm and hurricane forecasts for viewers and helping them prepare for severe weather. The Mayfields’ two daughters are in college, and their son is starting post-graduate work. The tuition bills haven’t gone away, but even if they had Mayfield’s heart remains in forecasting hurricanes and jawboning the public to “prepare, prepare, prepare.”

“I hope to be around the hurricane scene for years to come,” he says. “It’s all I’ve done for 34 years. I don’t know anything else.” That’s not quite true. The Mayfields both love to fish. “We could become mates on a fishing boat in the Keys,” he says.

Maybe someday. Fishing has a special place in the Mayfield family lore. Linda’s dad, a Miami NWS forecaster, was an avid angler. When flatlander Mayfield — an Oklahoma native — came to Miami in 1972 after a two-year enlistment as an Air Force meteorologist, Linda’s dad took him under his wing and introduced him to catching redfish and sea trout. They used to fish the flats from a small cathedral-hull boat off Florida’s southern tip. Mayfield’s new fishing buddy — the father of five daughters — also introduced him to his future wife. “The first time I met her was on a fishing trip,” he says.

As HurricaneCenter director, Mayfield became so busy that he found little time to fish, and when he did it was on friends’ boats. His own steed for forays on the inshore flats is a forest-green canoe he keeps in his back yard. The day after he retired, Mayfield went fishing with Richard Stanczyk, owner of popular Bud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina in Islamorada, Fla. “It was the best fishing I’ve done in my life,” he says. He caught four cobia — “Great fighters,” he says — and a 200-pound grouper that he released back into the Gulf of Mexico.

As a boater and hurricane forecaster for more than three decades, Mayfield has seen people die on their boats rather than leave them unattended in a storm. “I know some people love their boat more than they love their spouse but believe me, your boat is not the place to be during a hurricane,” he says. “Put your boat in a safe place, secure it, make sure your insurance is paid up, and do what your local officials tell you to do.” That usually means find safe shelter landside.

Mayfield hopes to fish more now, but he remains passionate about hurricane preparedness. He has unfinished hurricane business.

The soft-spoken, amiable weatherman guided the HurricaneCenter and millions of Americans in harm’s way through two of the worst hurricane seasons in memory. Mayfield thought the 2004 season might be the defining moment of his tenure as director, with four hurricane landfalls in Florida, two of them back-to-back. Then came 2005, with 28 named storms, a killer hurricane named Katrina, and the terrible drama of a sluggish evacuation. Mayfield knew the Katrina evacuation wasn’t going well when one of his staff, Matthew Green, reported that his mother was ignoring the warnings. “His mother lived in New Orleans, and he couldn’t get his own mother to leave,” Mayfield says.

So he phoned Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, warning all three personally that this was “the big one,” a potential killer. Evacuation was critical. As director, Mayfield’s job off-season was to educate emergency managers and citizens in preparing for hurricanes; his job in-season was to forecast storms and issue warnings.

“I wanted to walk out of the Hurricane Center that night and know I’d done everything I possibly could [to warn officials that their citizens were in jeopardy],” he says.

The HurricaneCenter began alerting authorities 56 hours before Louisiana and Mississippi were in the crosshairs of a Category 4 or 5 storm. New Orleans residents didn’t receive a mandatory evacuation order until 19 hours before landfall — too late for many. More than 1,300 people died in Katrina.

“That’s unacceptable,” Mayfield says. But as bad as it was, it is only a harbinger of more to come. “That is not going to be the only $100 billion hurricane; it’s only the first $100 billion hurricane.”

The Atlantic and Caribbean are in a 25- to 40-year cycle of more active and intense hurricane seasons. The last active cycle, from 1900 to ’65, produced the unnamed hurricane of 1926, a Category 4 behemoth that bulldozed South Florida and caused an estimated $150 billion damage in today’s dollars, says Mayfield. Most of Miami Beach was under water. If another storm like that were to hit South Florida, with its miles of beachfront luxury high-rises, who knows? “Is a $500 billion hurricane possible?” he asks. “I don’t know. It’s scary to think about.”

Mayfield says hurricane damage has been doubling by the decade, mainly because of high-density, high-value coastal construction. “If we continue to populate the coastline, damage is going to keep going up,” he says. Insurance rates will keep rising; mortgages will be harder to get. Mayfield realizes the dream of a home on the water isn’t going away. He knows cities encourage coastal development to jack up their tax bases. America may decide that all of this is OK. “But what is not acceptable is the continuing loss of life,” he says.

A storm more catastrophic than Katrina is possible, even likely, he says. Yet Mayfield sees no evidence of political will to restrict coastal development or set building standards high enough that new construction will withstand major hurricanes. He is advocating for a quasi-public agency — a partnership of public and private stakeholders — to investigate disasters and issue recommendations to mitigate loss of life and property in future such disasters.

When an aircraft crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board finds out why and the airline industry corrects the problem. “It seems to me we keep making the same mistakes over and over again [in preparing for and responding to hurricanes],” he says. “We are looking for a champion right now. The concept is good. The devil is in the details. We’re going to start talking more about this.”

Mayfield says forecasters have cut by half the error in their forecast tracks over 15 years, though more in the five-day forecasts than in shorter ones. The average error in the 24-hour forecast track has averaged 60 nautical miles over five years. Every day beyond that the forecast error increases another 60 nautical miles to a 300-nautical-mile margin of error in the five-day forecast track. He thinks forecasters also do a pretty good job of forecasting wind speed at landfall. Average error is 10 knots 24 hours out, 15 knots 48 hours before landfall, and 20 knots in the 72-hour forecast.

Mayfield attributes forecast improvements to more sophisticated computer models and to more and better observational data collected from satellites, aircraft and sensors going into those models.

“What we don’t catch very well is the rapidly intensifying hurricane,” he says. Only 20 percent of hurricanes are Category 3, 4 or 5 at landfall, but they cause 80 percent of the damage. He thinks we’ll see some improvements in forecast tracking, but that likely will level off soon, especially in the short-term forecast. The challenge now is to make some real improvement in forecasting rapid intensification.

“Wilma went from a tropical storm to Category 5 in 24 hours,” says Mayfield. “Our worst nightmare is that you’ll go to bed expecting a Category 1 and wake up to a Category 5 at your doorstep.”

The veteran forecaster has experienced the destructive power of hurricanes first-hand. In August 1992, he was working on the fifth floor of the Gables One Tower office building — the National Hurricane Center’s old digs — when Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida with winds of 165 mph, gusts to 200 mph. The storm — the most destructive at the time, with more than $50 billion in damage — blew the Hurricane Center’s radar off the roof. At home in Kendall, Linda and the three children hunkered down while Andrew stripped shingles and tarpaper off the roof and water leaked into the house. With phones out, he didn’t even know his family was OK until another forecaster drove by the house and checked. “We took a hit,” he says. The family wound up living in a mobile home for months while the house awaited repair.

Mayfield contracted for a metal roof in summer 2005, before the worst hurricane season in memory, and he’s happy with it. “When I went up in helicopters [after hurricanes], I saw that the metal roofs did very, very well,” he says, better than either shingle or tile.

Like most Floridians, though, he isn’t happy with the cost of his windstorm insurance. His premiums went way up despite the metal roof, but at least the veteran hurricane weatherman can say he practices what he preaches: “Prepare, prepare, prepare.”